Is it Public Relations, or Communications?

Last week, I spotted this thought-provoking post by Gini Dietrich on her blog SpinSucks. In it, she tackles the question of defining public relations.

I was intrigued by the piece, because I’ve noticed that PR is used in all kinds of different contexts, but there doesn’t seem to be an established shared meaning for the term. Gini makes the point that the main source of confusion seems to be around the relationship between the term “public relations” and “communications”. Personally, I see myself as a communicator and have never felt an affinity for the term public relations, even though there is clearly lots of overlap between the two. Also, I find that “public relations” is a term that is used more extensively in a corporate setting (often to differentiate from “investor relations”), but it has very little traction in the public, para-public or association sector.

While definitions may not be the sexiest topic, I think it actually matters more than we think. Understanding the work we do and the value we contribute is foundational to setting up expectations – an area fraught with difficulty for communicators and PR practitioners alike.

Gini argues that there is really no difference between PR and communications – her definition for public relations includes everything from media relations, to stakeholder relationships, to reputation management, crisis communications, internal communications and social media outreach.

While I agree with the post’s explanation that the scope of public relations has grown significantly, I’m not sure that the especially broad definition proposed is as helpful as it could be.

In particular, I don’t think that most of our clients would think of internal communications as within the scope of public relations, which has a strong external connotation. This would set up a potentially risky situation of unclear roles and responsibilities or disconnects between service delivery and expectation. Not to mention that lumping all of these external and internal activities in one undifferentiated bucket undervalues the unique skill set and focus of internal communications.

In addition, internal communications is related to several associated functions such as change communication and employee communication – components more usefully labeled under the general rubric of “corporate communications.” The term corporate communications – that is, the intentional connection and alignment of both internal and external communication to advance organizational objectives – is a useful term that adds clarity and value to the function.

I would tend to use the terms public relations and communications very differently: in my mind, all public relations is communication, but not all forms of communication are PR. As is so often the case, the challenge is not only to define the terms we’re using, but to explain how they relate to each other.

I appreciate Gini putting the issue on the radar as an invitation for practitioners to have this conversation and help refine how we define our work. Another industry leader, Shel Holtz, has also recently done a lot of worthwhile work in this area, particularly focused on defining the scope for employee communications. Please share any other definitions you suggest in helping shape these important terms.